Aleksandar and Isobel are siblings and former classical music prodigies, once destined for greatness. As the only Eastern European family growing up on their block on the far southside of Chicago, the pair were inseparable until each was forced to confront the absurdity of tragedy at an early age and abandon their musical ambitions. Now in their twenties, they find themselves encountering ridiculous jobs, unfulfilling romantic relationships, and the outrageousness of ordinary life.
Aleks’s travails are engaging in no small part because of Meno’s sure grasp of Chicago geography and the city’s topographic, economic, racial, and ethnic particularities. It’s a rich and underexplored terrain in both literature and pop culture. This is not the Chicago of Ferris Bueller, the Blues Brothers, or Al Capone, but the patchwork, maddeningly contradictory city longtime residents know and grudgingly adore. The neighborhood in which Aleks has memorized every broken piece of sidewalk is far away from the lakefront or any other aspect the city offers up to outsiders and tourists. When he finds himself downtown, he’s tentative and feels undereducated and poorly dressed, as too many lifelong Chicagoans do ... despite the long odds stacked against his characters, Meno keeps their story buoyant when it could have been a maudlin litany of misery and complaint. These people have hope and keep trying. They’re hopelessly optimistic in their own twisted way ... What this story gets so right is how so many of us live in the past and the present all at once.
... captures something of a modern-day naturalism ... The book is divided into four movements, just like a symphony. Things happen quickly in movement one, where Aleks’ obstacles are laid before the reader. Meno follows this with a slower movement during which his characters sit idle and make little progress. In the third movement, the characters — especially Aleks and Isobel — become bodies in motion. The final movement rises to a satisfying crescendo ... Music as a motif plays a further role because our leading figure’s passion for it renders his hearing loss even more poignant. Here and elsewhere, Meno is keen to saddle his characters with traits that grate against their ambitions or hint at their internal struggles ... The novel itself can be seen as a symphony of artful complexity with careful timbre, melody, and countermelody all harmonizing together. It is not, however, poetic. If you’re looking for a work with stylistic flair, Book of Extraordinary Tragedies, with its clipped syntax and plain-spokenness, isn’t it. But if you’re seeking a dark commentary on the life of a third-generation immigrant family in 21st-century America — one that reveals its more subtle undertones only upon additional reads — the author gives you exactly that.
Day after day, Aleks, a stubborn angel in a cruel world, a ragtag philosopher, recounts the spinning-in-place round of his endless daily battles, making for an exhausting if purposeful narrative spiral. Yet for all their sorrows and epic bad luck, Meno’s characters are imaginative, funny, and tough and their wretched predicaments attain cosmic absurdity. As in all his tender and edgy fiction, Meno’s poetic prose is infused with sweet compassion and sharp protest as he marvels over 'the beautiful failure of all human beings struggling against their own glorious mistakes' while, somehow, finding a way forward.